The BMW R 5 was brought out in 1936 and broke the motorcycle mould in many respects. Its creator, Rudolf Schleicher, later referred to it as his most important design. With a sophisticated look whose defining elements included a double-cradle frame and a state-of-the-art telescopic fork, it already boasted some of the qualities of later generations of motorcycle and had a lasting stylistic influence.

There are so many things we simply take for granted nowadays without reflecting that, at some point in time, an ingenious designer must have come up with the idea for them. This also includes such basic stuff as the arrangement of switches and levers. Whereby it must be said that the simplest things are often the hardest to improve on – it’s only afterwards that everyone wonders why no-one had ever thought of doing it that way before. The gear-change on motorcycles is just one such example, as for many years it basically worked in the same way as the shift on a car: pull the clutch lever then operate the shifter by hand. However, the principle still in use in cars today had a major drawback when it came to motorcycles, as the rider had to let go of the handlebar to change gear. And if they happened to be cornering at the same time, the whole thing quickly turned into something of a balancing act.

I’ll lead the way – the new BMW R 5 from 1936.

The BMW R 5 was the first BMW motorcycle to feature a foot-operated four-speed gearbox. Riders could therefore leave their hands on the handlebar; they just had to train their left foot to get used to the new way of doing things. There was also a brand new electrically welded double-cradle frame made from tubular steel, which had been adapted directly from the works racing machine and offered excellent torsional stiffness. This combined with the hydraulically damped telescopic front fork to give the R 5 outstanding directional stability and roadholding, which was a highly refreshing tonic at a time when roads were often in a poor state – full of potholes, loose stones and bumps. The bike’s fleet-footed controllability was also down to its engine. The OHV boxer unit extracted 24 hp from its half-litre capacity, while only sports cars could rival its top speed of 135 km/h (84 mph) back then. The result was endless riding pleasure on Germany’s new autobahns.

A man with motorcycles in his blood – Rudolf Schleicher.

Motorcycles and their engineering were foremost in the mind of designer Rudolf Schleicher from an early age. He started racing shortly after the end of the First World War while studying mechanical engineering, and his exploits in the competitive arena put him very much in the shop window. BMW design chief Max Friz was one of those to spot the young man’s talents; Schleicher duly started work at BMW in 1923, and there was no holding him back. After getting series production of the very first BMW motorcycle, the R 32, up and running, the R 37 model designed by his own hand won the German Championship the very next year. His relentless quest for even better solutions helped to revolutionise motorcycle manufacture, as exemplified by the hydraulic telescopic fork for the front wheel. He even went so far as to call the R 5 his most important design. This was indeed a visionary machine; looking at it now, you’d swear it was from the 1950s, rather than the 30s.

A short time in production, but with a lasting impact.

Despite all this, the BMW R 5 was on sale for under two years. Only 2,652 had been built when production came to an end in 1937 to make way for a new and improved model already waiting in the wings: the R 51 with rear suspension.

The BMW R 5 carried a hefty price tag of 1,550 Reichsmarks – small-car money at that time – but attracted a devoted following nonetheless. One of its fans was the grandfather of Lord March, the landlord of the legendary Goodwood Motor Circuit. As well as a collection of cars and even an aeroplane, he also owned a motorcycle (an R 5) that you’d imagine he loved to lap around his home circuit. Decades later, his grandson stumbled across the bike purely by chance and was able to buy it back. Lord March proudly shows off the prodigal bike in the video below.

The dawn of a new era. The BMW R 5 was way ahead of its time, both technically and stylistically. Built in the 1930s, it looks more like a model from the 50s.

The handling and riding characteristics of the BMW R 5 set new standards. Its new double-cradle frame made from welded tubular steel offered excellent torsional stiffness.

The licence plate at the front is a relic of the pre-war years, the pride of the rider is timeless.

The newly designed and highly sophisticated OHV boxer engine with two camshafts, 500 cc and 24 hp delivered sporty performance.  

The new double-cradle frame made from tubular steel was one of the factors in the bike’s sound roadholding. Rear suspension was added one year later.

Plain and simple. The controls of a BMW R 5 were broadly the same as those found on motorcycles today. The most notable feature was without doubt the gearshift which, for the first time on a BMW, was operated by the driver’s foot instead of their hand.

As there was no rear suspension, a special seat construction was needed to make the bike comfortable to ride. After all, very few roads at the time were asphalted.

Motorcycle stunt artists, such as the gentleman in a duster shown here, tend to prefer bikes with a sturdy chassis and unshakable straight-line stability – both qualities of the BMW R 5.

Wins at motor sport events were great publicity and created just the right image. Here, Ernst Henne tackles some bumpy stuff off-road in 1936.

Elegant sidecar outfits such as the one shown here must have been a serious object of desire back in their heyday. Anyone who could afford one would be the king of the road. Pictured is a BMW R 5 with sidecar from 1940.

Two BMW R 5 bikes powering through a fast section of an otherwise off-road event in 1936.

The 1936 edition of the International Six Days Trial. Major events of this type were very popular and attracted big crowds. BMW was always among the favourites.

A BMW R 5 during the German Alpine Rally in 1938. Cornering on loose gravel is a true test of a rider’s mastery over their machine – and the quality of its design. Here, agility and stability are far more crucial than raw power.